Don't Mind Dyin

Rock & rolls last encores at the Ponderosa Stomp

Photo by James BunoanMoe Tucker: "You ever hear us live?"
Interviewer: "No."
Moe Tucker: "You're kidding. Oh, that's a shame. All this devotion is based on records? That's sad."

—InterviewfromVelvetUndergroundfanzineWhat Goes On, 1980-1990.

We were just about in Texas when the photographer realized he'd left his Earl Palmer LP at home, propped prominently against his record player, and now when we got to New Orleans, he would have nothing worthy for Earl Palmer to autograph. This was a problem because Earl Palmer—famed session drummer for Little Richard, for James Brown, for Sam Cooke, for Ike Turner, for the Beach Boys, for Neil Young, for the Batmantheme, honestly one of rock & roll's essential musicians—was born in 1924, and Earl Palmer—knock three times as I type this—would probably soon be dead.

There hadn't been much talk about the death of rock & roll for a while now, but we were headed to a sort of ultra-Hootenanny, a two-day R&B/soul/rock & roll show in April called the Ponderosa Stomp (justifiably touted as "two nights of insane rock & roll," and held in a stifling New Orleans bowling alley), and actual non-metaphorical death was practically second billed on all the advertisements: "We're losing so many of these first-generation artists," Dr. Ira Padnos, the Stomp's curator and a Louisiana State University assistant professor of anesthesiology better known by his nom de musee Dr. Ike, would say. "It's important to hear these performers and dance to their music. Ten years from now, they may not be around."

Rock & roll has always played like it's unafraid of death, yet not death in quite this way: live long, die slow, leave a wrinkled-up old corpse. But Dr. Ike was right. The last encore was about to happen. Elvis Presley had his first hit on a major label in 1956, a moment that means different things to different people; most romantically, the debut of the King dimmed the lights on what we now call the "early" days of rock & roll, an anarchic, mythic era when the music had neither a name nor a template. And while new variants of style and taste would bounce back and forth post-Elvis, establishing a very American form of pop culture that would survive pretty much until the Beatles (famously described as stealing our 1956 rock & roll and beaming it right back to us), it's that wild early spirit—record reviewers use words like swampy, primal, primitive—that something like the Hootenanny or the Stomp tries to honor.

But 1956 was a long time ago. Even Elvis would have been 70 this year. The average human life span is around 76, from a sample that didn't hammer at their own guts like almost every musician since drink tickets began. Sometime soon, just like with Civil War veterans, there will come a time when everyone who was there—those who wrote the songs, played the guitars, even just saw the concert at the teen center—will be gone, which will make a certain kind of rock & roll from then on a secondhand experience.

Which it almost is already. The recorded document of a live band is, at best, a supplemental but equal work—a Raw Power, for example, to stand separate but side-by-side with Iggy trying to fight a biker gang in 1974. Post-PetSounds,post-Sgt.Pepper,that's not so much true anymore—the recording is an art form unto itself. But in 1956? The big studio trick was slapback. You cut to tape live. You did your best, and then you went out and gigged. Maybe that's what reviewers mean by "primitive": musicians still had a bit of the medieval in them, the tail end of the troubadour tradition, an art form that was a very transient one, presented in fallible real time to whoever showed up to hear it. Live music is dynamic; it must be re-created on the spot, over and over, and created anew as it happens—the inspired improv, the happy accident. This is the heart of a band; filmmakers do not re-shoot a movie each time they plan to show it, and authors do not re-type their short stories. A hit 45 might get people excited, but that's not where the process stops. There is something that must happen between performer and audience.

Unless nobody's left to play. People understand this about music; they fly out to see "last shows" or reunion tours even if they have all the records because they recognize that the human part of music is the most special, as well as the most fragile—that once it's gone, there's only echoes on tape. Good, maybe, but not the real thing. And that's why we were in New Orleans, though it makes me sound like a vampire: to see the real thing.

* * *

The Stomp was torture; it was designed to be: so much rock & roll, grinned Dr. Ike, that your body would collapse and you'd moan, "No more!" Which probably actually happened, since previous Stomps regularly ran till 6 a.m.—in New Orleans, the liquor stays up as late as you do—with septuagenarian soul singers belting it out for the last hardy (and blasted) survivors. This year, the first night ran—purportedly—to the minute. The second blew easily into 3 or 4 a.m. There were two stages set up in a bowling alley so vintage it still had hand-scoring tables and so vintage it didn't even have windows . . . or ventilation. There was a dedicated bar for each stage and a ragged line of vendors—Rudy Ray Moore was selling pimp sticks, and he had one of the most professional setups—and a thousand-some old people who were tough as fucking nails. I must have been one of the very youngest people there, and I'm not that young—older than a lot of dead rock & rollers ever were, by far.

But these were the originals. I watched a guy with a wedge of white hair push past some baby-faced doof in a cowboy-snap-button shirt and a shimmery D.A. cut: What's that like, I wondered, to run into your own actual youth reincarnated, in the too-big-for-him clothes you probably donated to the thrift store in the first place? I was gonna ask, but then another grandpa turned around to me and said, "Hey, you look like a guy in the know. Where can I get a puff around here?" I was too shocked to shake out a sentence, so he mimed a joint between two fingers in case I didn't get it and said, "Hey, if you're gonna reminisce, you gotta REMINISCE!"

They had the look—what Michael Herr meant when he said he couldn't tell the rock & roll veterans from the Vietnam veterans, and when he wrote that rock & roll was already getting pretty lame. You'd stand next to a guy who looked like an insurance salesman, and then 20 minutes later, he'd be onstage—he was Roy Head, shouter behind "Treat Her Right," (the song from Catch Me If You Can, do you remember?), and he had his voice intact, and suddenly he broke off a story about falling drunk off a stage to drop to his belly and do the 'gator up and down between his guitar players. He had more charisma than kids a quarter his age, and (supposedly) he really was an insurance salesman!

The Stomp didn't book like the Hootenanny, which deals mostly with . . . let's call them "working musicians." The Stomp digs for stars like those blues hunter guys dig for 78s, finding old men and women and handing them a 50-year-old record and saying, "Remember this?" (They really do that, says Dr. Ike: he'll send people copies of their own recordings, just to refresh their memories.)

It's a strange atmosphere, absolutely charged with devotion: performers who haven't been on a stage for 30 years, maybe a week or two off from dawdling with the grandkids or snipping at the retirement garden, and then Dr. Ike knocks on their door and even sets up the backing band. There's always plenty of guys kicking around who never stopped playing out, if at a more modest level—the Ventures' Nokie Edwards barely cracked a smile as he led Hootenanny-and-Stomp alum Deke Dickerson though a pinpoint-precise set of surf songs. But naturally, for an event that draws from the obsessive collector crowd, it was the rarest appearances that everyone loved most—as it should be, I thought.

There is such an unresolved question of aging in rock & roll. I've had punk bands tell me they wanted to play for the rest of their lives, "like jazz musicians." What they must have meant is they wanted a pass to be old and still cool—as opposed to, say, Billy Idol—and that they wanted their audience to age with them, so they wouldn't feel shackled to the disgusting tastes of teenagers. (There comes a point when a 50-year-old man can't and shouldn't be able to relate to a 16-year-old kid; or maybe not justto a 16-year-old kid.) But for those who weren't able to keep their career going, the Stomp offered a sort of second prize—a sweet twilight redemption for performers who felt their moment had come and gone. Which it had. But it feels good to know people remember. Betty Harris (the southern soul belle—born 1941—who sang "Cry to Me" and "Mean Man") hadn't performed since 1970; it's hard to resist turning up the schmaltz, but she did look a little like she might cry as she stretched her arms wide open to hold a high note. "Thanks for coming," she said. "Thanks for caring."

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